The world premiere of a Chernobyl-inspired film by Jane and Louise Wilson – opening at the Whitworth this week – is oddly elegiac, finds Jessica Lack.
The town of Pripyat lies only two hours north of Kiev, close to the Russian border, but for Ukrainians it has always been an alien place. Set in the heart of what Stalin used to call the Soviet Union’s breadbasket, it was designed as a working town, but not for the farmers who lived and prospered among the talismanic fruit and forests. Pripyat was built for the labourers of Chernobyl, and it hasn’t changed in twenty-six years, not since the liquidators came in to drive the inhabitants from their homes.
Last year the artists Jane and Louise Wilson travelled to Pripyat to make a specially commissioned work, “Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)”, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the disaster. What they documented was a decaying town, slowly being subsumed by the sulphurous landscape about it. In each photograph there is a measuring stick two metres long, about the average height of a man, a small but vital link with the human existence that was once here.
The images will be exhibited at the Whitworth alongside the Wilson’s new film “The Toxic Camera”, inspired by the disturbing story of Vladimir Shevchenko, the filmmaker who travelled to Chernobyl in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear disaster to document the clean-up operation. What Shevchenko saw on a hot, dry day in April 1986 was a place hazy with the dust of toxic waste, at the centre of which, ashen miners struggled to stop an unstable reactor from collapsing.
“It’s an oddly elegiac film,” says Jane Wilson, “because you’re very conscious that all the people you see on camera felt duty-bound to be there and that this was done at great personal cost and sacrifice.”
Parts of the documentary are pockmarked and shudder with static interference. This is the visual manifestation of radiation on film and echoes our own prickly dread in watching it. Shevchenko, like so many of the men he recorded, died a few months later of radiation poisoning. “He was aware of the risks involved,” says Louise Wilson, “but he came from a certain school of documentary film making where the moral imperative was to bring the truth to the public.”
In recognition of this moral duty, the Wilsons try to encapsulate the Ukrainian tragedy in the context of universal responsibility. Part of the film features the old H-Bomb testing site on Orford Ness off the Suffolk coast. “We were fascinated by the architecture there,” says Jane, “because it was built solely to test the casing of the H-bomb, a kind of nuclear experimentation, and there is something very pure about a function that dictates its form in architectural terms.” The buildings have pointed roofs and are known locally as Pagodas. “They were specifically designed,” says Louise, “so that in the event of an explosion the uprights supporting the lid or the roof would blow out causing the surrounding shingle to fall inside and this would contain the blast.”
The shapes, ironically, echo the deserted Buddhist temples of Fukishima in Japan where a more recent nuclear disaster has occurred. Paradoxically, what the Wilsons have evoked through their journey across the empty, deadly radioactive wastelands of the world, are the plaintive words of the great anti-nuclear campaigner Bertram Russell; “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest”.
Jane and Louise Wilson, the Whitworth, 6 October 2012-27 January 2013, free. This exhibition is part of the Manchester Weekender. For more contemporary art, try The First Cut at Manchester Art Gallery, our interview with David Shrigley or our review of the Liverpool Biennial. Or for more things to do in Manchester, give our October Event Radar a whirl.
Words: Jessica Lack. Images (top to bottom): all Jane and Louise Wilson, Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum), 2010, courtesy and copyright the artists.